Tenets of Buddhism

From SamuraiWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search

The historical Buddha, Siddhartha, was born around 463 BCE in India. His philosophy spread eastwards and after several hundred years reached Japan through Korea around the sixth century. Although the native Japanese religion of Shinto at first was violently opposed to Buddhism, the religion came to take hold through the efforts of the Soga clan and the regent Prince Shotoku. Shinto and Buddhism formed a close bond in Japan that continues to this day (with a rift in relations in the late 19th/early 20th century). Most modern Japanese (by some estimates 99%) claim to practice both. In the following explanation, the Japanese terms are used rather than the original Indian/Sanskrit except where noted.

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path

Buddhism is based upon the Four Noble Truths (Shitai):

  • The Truth of Suffering: we live in a world of suffering
  • The Truth of Cause: suffering has cause
  • The Truth of Extinction: when cause becomes extinct, so does suffering
  • The Truth of the Path: the right way to achieve this

Which brings us to the Eightfold Noble Path:

  • Shohken: right view
  • Shohshui: right thinking
  • Shohgo: right speech
  • Shohgoh: right action
  • Shohmyoh: right living
  • Shoshojin: right endeavor
  • Shohnen: right memory
  • Shohjoh: right meditation

This basically calls for not having wicked thoughts, allowing wicked thoughts, or using wicked language. The last two points are used to discipline the mind. Following the Four Noble Truths eliminates ignorance of the the Twelve Causations and the Eight Sufferings (Hakku: birth, old age, illness, death, death of loved one, hating others, inability to meet desires, and adhering to the five sufferings of mind and body), and allows the adherent to achieve enlightenment (Satori, or Bodai: supreme enlightenment), become a Buddha, be released from the cycle of rebirth, and enter Nehan (or Nirvana, as known in the West). The engine that drives Buddhism is the elimination of earthly desires.

Groupings and Sects

There are two general groupings of Buddhism:

  • Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle): This places the onus on the individual to achieve enlightenment through meditation, contemplation, and ceremony. Esoteric sects and Zen fall under this category.
  • Mahayana (Greater Vehicle): Everyone can become a Buddha and benefiting others is an integral part of enlightenment. These comprise the Jôdo (Pure Land) sects, where one can enter the land of Amida Buddha simply by repeating his name over and over. The Jôdo sects are by far the largest Buddhist groups in Japan today. They brought Buddhism, which before was largely for the rich and educated, to the masses.

The major sects in Japan today include:

  • Tendai Lotus sect: An esoteric sect, built around the Threefold Truth: all things are of the void, all things are temporary, and all things are in both states at once.
  • Shingon Esoteric Buddhism: An esoteric sect introduced by Kôbô Daishi in the 9th century and also known as Mikkyô ("esoteric teachings") in Japan. Its central belief is found in the Mahavairocan Sutra (Dainichi-kyô). The practice of Shingon involves doctrine, philosophy, deities such as Jizô and Fudô Myôô, ritual, and meditation. The Three Mysteries comprise Esoteric Mudra Of The Body, Esoteric Mantra Of Speech, and Internal Visualization of the mind.
  • Jôdo-shû and Jôdo shinshû (Pure Land Bukkyo): formed by Hônen in the 12th century, these sects believe chiefly in the repetition of the nenbutsu as a means to obtain salvation from Amida Buddha, such that one can enter the Western Paradise (Pure Land), from which it is far easier to attain nirvana.
  • Zen Buddhism (Sôtô & Rinzai): this puts the emphasis on sudden awareness of reality through meditation. Zen began to make inroads in the 12th century through the teachings of Eisai (Rinzai) and Dôgen (Sôtô) after finding its way over from China in about 500 CE. Zen has been a heavy influence on Japanese art (Noh, poetry, Ikebana, tea ceremony, screen painting) and is likely the best known form of Buddhism in the Western world. One caveat is that the form of Zen taught in many Western schools of martial arts has little to do with the original.

There are many other sects and sub-sects, but these are the largest.


The historical Buddha’s teachings are split up into doctrines of truth (the Law Of The Truth, or Dharma) as well as rules needed for a Buddhist Order. These are known as the "Teachings" and "The Precepts". There are also interpretations done by his followers known as the "Commentaries". Together, these three comprise the "Three Baskets" and are collectively known as Sutras.

Some of the better known ones are:

  • The Wisdom Sutra (Hannya-Kyo)
  • The Lotus Sutra (Hoke-Kyo, the favorite of Nichiren)
  • The Triple Pure Land Sutra (Jodo-san Bukkyo: The Buddha of Infinite Life Sutra, The Meditation On The Buddha of Infinite Life Sutra, and the famous Amida Sutra)
  • The Garland Sutra (Kegon-Kyo)
  • The Mahavairocana Sutra (Dai-Nichi-Kyo, the guiding sutra of Shingon and Tendai sects)
  • The Diamond Peak Sutra (another major sutra for the Esoteric sects).

Sutras can be thought of as the Buddhist ‘bible’ and are what you hear Monks chanting when visiting a temple.

Inga is the belief in cause and effect; simply put, that good acts have a beneficial effect on one’s life and evil acts a detrimental effect. The concept of Inga is better known in the west as Karma, and is one of the more misunderstood concepts of Buddhism in the Western world (in fact, the word Karma is now used almost exclusively in the West; usually only religious scholars use it in Asian countries these days). When one builds up a great deal of negative inga, this will affect what happens in the cycle of rebirth. Inga is more than simply fate or luck-it makes each individual directly responsible for their eventual fate.

The cycle of rebirth and reincarnation is known as Rinne. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to escape the cycle of Rinne through enlightenment (Bodai) and enter Nehan (better known in the West as Nirvana)-this is known as Gedatsu. Some beings choose not to enter Nehan but rather remain behind in the Earthly realm and aid others achieve enlightenment: these beings are called Bosatsu (Bodhisattva). Some of the better known Bosatsu in Japan include Jizô, Kannon, and Miroku. The historical Buddha is known as Shaka, while a generic term for Buddha(s) is Hotoke(-sama).

Your actions during your lifetime have a direct impact on where you will be reborn in the Six Realms Of Desire (assuming you don’t achieve enlightenment during that time). The enlightened ones dwell in Nehan, but for the rest of us the Six Realms are as follows (listed from highest proximity to enlightenment to least):

  • Realm of Humans (the Earthly realm): where all of us currently reside, but also includes many bakemono such as kappa, foxes, tatsu, tengu, and the like.
  • Tengoku (realm of heavenly beings): divas, deities, kami, and the like dwell here.
  • Animal Kingdom: our furry, scaly, winged, and insectoid friends.
  • Realm of Asuras: much like Tengoku, except here the spirits are constantly fighting-for example, yôkai inhabit this realm (but are well known to sometimes intrude into the Realm of Humans): beings like yuki-onna, iso-onna, rokuro-kubi, ita-oni, and the oddball animated objects, the tsukumogami.
  • Realm of Hungry Spirits: the most famous being the gaki, with the evil onryo and yûrei here as well.
  • Jigoku: home to the Eight Hot Hells and The Eight Cold Hells, each of which has a detailed description I won’t get into here. The being Emma-Ô is the lord of this realm and has as his servants the great ogres known as oni, famous for their tetsubô (iron studded clubs). Not a good place to be.

Eventually, the dedicated Buddhist will climb the ladder of The Six Realms and enter into Nehan, becoming one with the universe and never returning to the Realms.

Traditionally, women were said to be hindered from attaining enlightenment in five ways, known as the Five Hindrances (Skt: pañca nivāraṇa; J: gokai): sensory desire, ill-will, sloth, restlessness/worry, and doubt.[1] Belief in this has fallen away in the modern period, however.

Most modern Buddhists do not take the Six Realms literally but rather as metaphors for states of being. The "state" of being a Hungry Spirit is linked with greed and materialism. The "state" of dwelling in Jigoku is linked with anger and violence, either towards oneself or others. The "state" of dwelling in the Asura realm is linked with jealously, envy, and selfishness. The "state" of dwelling in Tengoku is linked with arrogance. The "state" of being an animal is linked with ignorance.

Obviously, someone could exist in more states than just one. The final state is that which does not exist in the previous five stages. This is the state of being human and is the state from which one can achieve enlightenment. Interestingly enough, this places the realm of humans above the realm of Tengoku.

After a rocky beginning and some trouble in the late 19th/early 20th century, Buddhism and Shinto have worked well together in Japan. Most temples have at least one Shrine on their grounds. The kami of Shinto are usually considered to be the Bosatsu of Buddhism (and vice versa, despite an attempt in the late 19th century to force them to be classified as one or the other) and it is not unusual for the same beings to have different names in either religion. The vast majority of Japanese claim to practice both. In many ways the practice of these religions has become more of a philosophy that has become ingrained into the daily life of Japanese rather than a religion based on regular services.

Warrior Monks

Now we come to the militant factions of Buddhism: the Sohei and Ikko-Ikki. While the two are sometimes confused, they had significant differences. The Sohei were the famous warrior monks, most notably the monks of the Tendai sect on Mount Hiei. There were also large enclaves of warrior monks in Nara and also Negoro-dera, although most every temple complex would have some Sohei on hand.

The monks exercised their strength on a regular basis throughout Japanese history. Whether they were carrying their shrines into the streets of Kyoto to protest some perceived slight or giving aid to the Azai and Asakura in their battles against the Oda, the Sohei proved to be a thorn in the side of many a samurai or court member. Many of these so-called ‘monks’ were little more than thugs kept on for their fighting abilities. The military actions of the Sohei came to an abrupt halt in the Sengoku era when Oda Nobunaga finally had enough of their interference and burned the Mount Hiei complex to the ground, slaughtering thousands of monks, women, and children in the process.

The last major military action involving Sohei involved the defence of the Negoro-dera complex against Toyotomi Hideyoshi (they were also joined by one of the last sizable Ikko-Ikki forces), where again, the monks were wiped out. Wisely, the Sohei of Nara remained inactive during the Sengoku era. The Sohei felt secure in their beliefs that no samurai or lord would dare risk incurring the wrath of the gods by attacking their enclaves, and therefore rarely did any significant fortifying of their temple complexes (one of the reasons Mount Hiei fell so quickly).

The Ikko-Ikki ("single minded league", although Ikki also means "riot" in Japanese) were the forces of the Jodo sects of Buddhism. Unlike the warrior monks, they drew their forces from the entire spectrum of society. An Ikko army might include monks, farmers, merchants, and even many samurai. Notable enclaves of the Ikko-Ikki include Ishiyama Hongan-ji (which later became the site of Osaka castle), Nagashima, and the entire province of Kaga. They were a much later development than the Sohei and were scattered throughout Japan.

In sharp contrast to the Sohei, the Ikko-Ikki elaborately fortified their complexes and put them together with defending against long sieges in mind. They were among the first in Japan to realize the true strength of firearms in building up an army consisting of many untrained peasants. Even a powerful daimyo like Oda Nobunaga found himself hurling wave after wave of troops at the fortified temples of the Ikko with little in the way of results to be shown.

However, Oda was nothing if not persistent, and through attrition and good positioning managed to slowly conquer the Ikko complexes one by one. When the Ikko stronghold of Ishiyama Hongan-ji surrendered, it marked the last time the armies of Jodo saw a major battle. Eventually the Jodo sent some of their few remaining forces to harass the armies of Shibata Katsuie during their retreat from Shizugatake. In appreciation, Hideyoshi allowed them to rebuild their temple in Kyoto (unfortified, of course) where it still is today.

In comparing the Sohei and Ikko-Ikki, it is probably helpful to think of the Sohei as a militant religious order (such as the Knights of St John) and the Ikko-Ikki as a community bound together by a common religious belief (like Puritan or Quaker communities).


  • Mizuno Kogen Basic Buddhist Concepts Tokyo:Kosei Publishing Co, 1998
  • Pauling, Chris Introducing Buddhism New York:Barnes & Noble Books, 2001
  • Snelling, John The Buddhist Handbook New York:Barnes & Noble Books, 1998
  1. "Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan," Honolulu Museum of Art, exhibition website, accessed 30 November 2014.